“Who or what is your greatest source of inspiration?” I say peering up at Eric Ballard from under my hood. He is quiet for a few seconds, almost the same amount of time it took him to hop up and come to his door when I arrived. “Stevie Wonder,” he replies, running his fingers over the keys of his electric keyboard. In most college dorms desks are either bare or covered with paper, notebooks, laptops and the occasional pencil holder. On Ballard’s desk is his piano. The walls of other dorm rooms feature pictures, collages even. His room is bare. There is his bed, his desk with his piano atop, and his keyboard bag propped up on a wall.
“Why Stevie Wonder?” He paces between the bathroom door and his piano which is in the far left corner of his room. He finally commits to the piano standing in front of it, and says, “He’s blind, visually impaired, like me.” I say, “and he’s great despite that.” “Right” he agrees. He begins playing “Isn’t She Lovely”, almost begging me to sing along. “Isn’t she lovely, isn’t wonderful,” I hum to myself snapping my fingers.
Ballard, 21-year-old senior year at Manhattanville College, credits his family with his musical ambitions. Born in Queens, N.Y., he remembers being surrounded with sounds from New Edition and 70’s funk group, Earth Wind and Fire, to gospel singer Marvin Sapp and quartets. He began playing the piano when he was 12.
His uncle, the church pianist, taught him after he expressed interest in knowing how chords were played. By 15 he says he was pretty good. “I could play mostly anything.” He explains that the one advantage he had while learning to play the piano was his perfect pitch, a trait that is very rare amongst sighted people. Having perfect pitch helped him learn a lot quicker than the average pianist. I ask him to explain his process and how perfect pitch works.
“Well, I just hear the song and listen for the chords and the melody,” he says, “Perfect pitch is when someone can sing a note or play a note and I know what it is.” He makes the ability to recognize and produce the pitch of a note perfectly sound very simple. It is not. While perfect again, makes it easier there are other obstacles that come with being visually impaired. There is a process to learning to live with the impairment.
After failing music theory during his freshman year at Manhattanville College, Ballard attended Lighthouse Charter School, to receive help. He said Music Theory was very visual. After expressing his concerns to his mother, who is his biggest supporter, he was enrolled in classes and subsequently passed the class. “Things take longer to do,” he answers when I ask him about obstacles he faces outside of school.
He’s now sitting in front of his piano in his slightly wrinkled crew neck t-shirt and his Adidas pants bobbing his head, waiting for my next question. Before I ask a question, he blurts out, “I have a show soon with Danielle Carr, two actually.” Ballard and Danielle Carr, singer, songwriter, and Manhattanville student, have performed together at events on campus as Ballard is her bands pianist. I express interest and ask about his process and nerves before performing.
“If the song is complex or there are different parts then I’ll practice.” I recall him saying that many songs are similar, meaning the chords are, which makes it easier for him to learn and play multiple songs. When practicing and even performing, he often transitions into different songs. They’re very fluid transitions and the performer follows along if they know the songs he is playing.
The gigs he has with Carr are just two of the many gigs Ballard has. He plays at two churches in Queens and Brooklyn, he teaches music at Keiko Studio in Queens,, and is heavily involved in the music department on campus.
“I’m hoping to work full time at Keiko and eventually have 75-100 students learning under me,” he spoke of his plans post college. He wants to work in the studio with other musicians and singers; writing and producing music in every genre, from R&B/Soul to Indie Rock.
Of overcoming obstacles and pursuing his dreams as a teacher, producer and musician, Ballard says, “You have to want it,” and I add on without much thought, “and you have to do anything to get it.” Ballard looks forward to playing music for the rest of his life. He says of his impairment hindering his success, “It’s made me stronger.”